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Breaking Free of Suburbia's Stranglehold
Families Simplify Lifestyles in Quest for Meaning That Constant Hustle Obscured

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Jennifer McNelley's life felt like one big errand -- an endless series of Target runs and school drop-offs and commuting to two jobs from her Loudoun County home.

McNelley, a single mother of a 6-year-old, was feeling "overwhelmed and hopeless" when a flier appeared in her mailbox announcing a sermon series at her church called "Death by Suburb." The congregation would spend five weeks talking about the suburban lifestyle -- the consumerism and the overcaffeinated schedules, and how it all can choke the life out of you if you're not careful.

"That's how I feel . . . like we're squeezing in everything," said McNelley, 33. "My daughter has cried about it. She feels like we're always rushing. She asked me the other day, 'Mom, how come you never laugh anymore?' All I can think about is what needs to get done, laundry and everything else. It's affecting us hugely."

Turns out, many of McNelley's Ashburn neighbors were struggling with the same question: Is there a way, a slower way, to eke out more meaning in one's daily life? Now, they are all letting go of something so they can do more things that really matter.

Her friends Liz and Doug Schnelzer are letting the grass grow. Steve and Julie Johnston put their McMansion on the market so they could quit worrying about money and give more to charity. It was clear to McNelley that she needed to do something different, although she wasn't sure what.

It's not just suburban life that can leave people feeling like each day brings more of the same: commuting, work, errands, chores, pressure to pay the bills. The quest for more and bigger can breed isolation and stress, leaving some in the region to question their lifestyles.

David L. Goetz -- whose book "Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul" inspired the discussions McNelley attended -- said such searching is universal.

"The struggle is: How do you view the world in a deeper, more mystical way when you're living in an environment that sucks you in with more shallow goals -- bigger house, better body, perfect kids?" he said.

The families trying to change their lives this spring ended up dealing in the currency of small gestures. Dishes went unwashed. Laundry piled up. Pouty teenagers were overruled.

Change, when it came, was slight. But significant.

The Johnstons: Downsizing

The house was perfect, with four bedrooms on a half-acre lot in the Regency, one of Loudoun's most exclusive subdivisions. Julie Johnston, a teacher, had painted many of the rooms a warm yellow to match her family's French country furniture.

After a while, though, the huge space began to weigh on her.

She and her husband could just about afford the mortgage, and they were dipping into savings to pay for unexpected expenses. Their credit card debt was creeping up. And they couldn't tithe at their church as they wanted to.

Five years after they bought the house, she and husband Steve, 48, an accountant, sat down at the kitchen table and ran the numbers. The outsize home had to go. And with it, the "prestige of living in the Regency," Steve said.

Julie gave up her granite countertops. Steve gave up his library. Son Ryan, 14, gave up proximity to his best friends across the street, who shared his passion for music. Daughter Taryn, 15, endured quizzing from classmates about the sudden move.

" 'My parents wanted to downsize,' " she would tell them. "They didn't really understand. They'd just ask me again the next day and want a different answer. I was annoyed."

The teenager was sitting at a bare kitchen table in her new house, a creamy four-bedroom colonial in the Carisbrooke subdivision. The Johnstons feel lucky to have found a single-family home in their price range in the same school district. Taryn cried the day the moving trucks came.

She misses the cathedral ceiling in her old bedroom. "To her, it was a big deal," Julie said. "And I understand that."

They also gave up their cleaning crew -- at $85 a pop every two weeks -- and their membership to the Ashburn Village Sports Pavilion. To compensate, the Johnstons added a basketball goal in front of their house. It sits across from the neighbor's hoop, and it's easy to imagine full-court pickup games there.

"Not on this cul-de-sac. There's no one around my age," Ryan said.

Despite the pangs, the family members say they are pleased with the move. Even the children say it's a relief to see their parents with less stress.

They no longer have to witness their parents' constant discussions about finances. The family has more disposable income now, so Taryn is dreaming of a Coach purse. Steve has eased his rule that the family could eat out only for $20 total; they celebrated Julie's birthday at a Bonefish Grill the other night.

"It's relaxed and a lot more fun now," Julie said.

The Schnelzers: Let It Grow

The lawn was half-mowed. It stayed that way for days, just as Doug Schnelzer had left it. His wife, Liz, joked that it had sprouted sideburns and wondered whether a citation letter from their homeowners association was in the mail.

Doug, 36, a chief technologist in Chantilly, had been mowing one evening when a friend dropped by needing to talk. Doug stopped to listen.

A baby step, sure, but an important one for the Schnelzers, who decided recently to stop striving for domestic perfection and forge deeper connections with family and friends. They now gather their children -- Pauline, 8, Travis, 5, and Logan, 3 -- for family prayer each evening.

Doug left work early recently to watch Travis's hockey practice at the Ashburn Ice House, but sitting in the chilly rink, he had to block the urge to check his PDA every five minutes.

"There's no magic bullet," he said. "People don't radically change overnight. It's the decision you make every day: How do you actually spend your time?"

The week the lawn had sideburns, Liz Schnelzer deliberately left dishes in the sink and a pile of clean laundry waiting to be folded -- so high she could see it towering over the back of her sofa -- to take one of her twice-weekly walks with her friend Roberta Weiker, 27.

Despite living in a planned community with plenty of opportunities to socialize -- swimming pools, miles of trails, even a bullfrog pond -- deep connections are sometimes hard to come by, said Liz, 38.

Everybody was welcoming when the family moved in, she adds quickly. Family members were deluged with gifts. But five years later, they have yet to have any couple over for dinner.

One recent spring day, she, Roberta and their kids meandered through the neighborhood to a playground, discussing whether Roberta and her husband should buy their first home in the neighborhood, as well as less earth-shattering topics: what was on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," cat allergies. The kids ran. Liz went down the curly slide.

"My biggest fear is being late for something," Liz said. "So what if we're a half an hour late to a lesson sometime? It's not that big a deal, but it drives my blood pressure up. I'm trying to let my body deal with it first, almost go into a state of deep breathing, a yoga thing." Prayer also helps: She often recites Psalm 118 to herself.

Recently, she was saying, things got crazy, and she called each of her girlfriends to say that whatever happens, they should get together. People should come first, she said.

Halfway through this telling, though, she stopped and checked her watch. It was a reflex.

Kindergarten pickup was next.

Jennifer McNelley: No Tears

McNelley knew she needed to change her life. Why else would she be crying all the time?

"I just can't wait anymore," she said. "I need to take a leap of faith and say, 'Screw it all,' and do what I have to do."

When her church, CrossCurrent Ministries, did the "Death by Suburb" series this year, she recognized herself in it, knowing she, too, was slowly drowning in the "toxins" of the suburbs -- the quest for more, the perfectly scheduled diagrams of days.

Her pastor, Chris Eads, was inspired to do the series after several families in his congregation left the area, overwhelmed by debt and oversize mortgages.

"The message is: You don't have to be crazy here and run 90 miles an hour and buy things you can't afford," the pastor said. "We're trying to change people's perspectives."

He counseled his flock to slow down, schedule time to contemplate, put off their latest Circuit City purchase (he was avoiding buying a digital camera), even consider pulling the kids out of sports for a semester.

The message resonated. One member of the congregation began thinking about the dreamy minutes he spent hitting the snooze button between 7 and 7:45 a.m. Could that time be put to spiritual use? Other families delayed purchases of pricey new homes.

McNelley's quest was a challenge. Her tightly scheduled days consist of work at a large construction firm and hours spent in her sport-utility vehicle, ferrying daughter Madison to school, dance class, dinners with her father, the grocery store. She also waitresses on the weekends to earn extra cash.

In early May, though, she went on a spiritual retreat sponsored by the church at a campground in rural Maryland. Among the trees and a field of buffaloes, she wrote in her journal, read the Bible and recharged. It was her first time out of Virginia in seven years.

To accomplish this, she stayed up until 3 a.m. the day before, doing laundry and cleaning her modest apartment. The place is decorated with Madison's drawings. A sign on the wall says in childish script, "My Dream: Everyone could have good food, and be able to work and have enough money to buy a house."

Three days later, McNelley returned home energized for the first time in months. Her face had color. The tears appeared to have stopped for now.

Now her mind was abuzz with other changes she and Madison could make. Maybe sponsor a Russian orphan? It costs about $35 a month, and they could fund it in part by giving up occasional treats at Starbucks -- a tea for her, a hot chocolate for Madison. She also wants to find a cheaper place to live so she can quit her waitressing job and spend more time with Madison.

But by that evening, the treadmill's pull had returned, their schedule thrown into havoc because of the weekend away. Madison had homework. McNelley began unloading the dishwasher so fast she was like a ballerina in her tiny kitchen, spinning.

"I'm a little bit more rushed, but because I have that peace, I'm not going to threaten myself to get it all done," she said.

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